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From New York Designer to Andretti Racing: Cancer connects patient to supporters

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

From New York Designer to Andretti Racing: Cancer connects patient to supporters

William “Bill” Ramey’s small town spans two Indiana counties. Since his cancer diagnosis, Ramey has also branched out. He’s advocating for early detection of colon cancer.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

People who know William “Bill” Ramey light up when they tell his story. He instinctively cares for and connects with others.

On a recent afternoon as he sat through infusion with IU Health Simon Cancer Center nurse Cindy Decarlo, this man from Peoga, In. talked with pride about his hometown.

“The church sits in Brown County and the graveyard in Johnson County. There were only 50 people in the town when I was growing up and there was a store on each end of the town,” said Ramey. “We’re known for hosting the biggest little Fourth of July parade in the world.”

As he talks, Ramey exudes a charm that explains his hospitality to others faced with his same diagnosis: Stage Four Colon Cancer. He doesn’t want to leave anyone behind – to fight their battle alone.

From his backpack he pulls a handwritten card with the sentiment: “I wanted to put a smile on your face and when things get tough, look at this card and remember what a wonderful person you are and how many people you’ve helped.”

The card is signed by another acquaintance - originally from Russia – diagnosed with colon cancer. It’s just one of hundreds of people who have been embraced by Ramey’s advocacy. They come from all over and range in age from teens to people in their 90s.

It was Valentine’s Day 2013 when Ramey was first diagnosed with Stage Four colon cancer.

“As far as I knew, the main symptom was there were no symptoms,” said Ramey, 63. He had returned to his cardiologist, IU Health’s Dr. William Gill, for a follow up appointment from a heart attack two years prior. His doctor told him everything looked great and he’d see him again in a year. But by the time Ramey and his wife of 37 years, Susan Ramey, returned home, there were three voicemail messages waiting from the doctor’s office. Ramey’s hemoglobin had dropped drastically and there was reason to believe he had significant blood loss.

He was scheduled to go to IU Health West for a follow-up appointment early the next week. When his condition worsened he was transported by ambulance. In the care of Dr. Paul Helft, Ramey has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy – he recently counted day 126 of infusion.

Since his diagnosis, Ramey spends about five hours a day updating and maintaining several social media sites including, “Faces of Cancer,” and “Stage Four Colon Cancer.” Both groups engage about 5,000 members. Ramey is also an active member of “Blue Hope Nation,” a Facebook group offering support to patients and family members faced with colorectal cancer.

“I got to a point in my treatment that I thought I was doing well enough I needed to pay it forward so I started connecting with people in the groups,” said Ramey. Over time his diagnosis has brought him face-to-face with a number of people from all walks of life that have one thing in common: Colorectal Cancer. He met one young woman when she was 17 weeks pregnant. Her now five-year-old daughter calls him “Grandpa Bill.” He has also stood shoulder to shoulder with racing legend John Andretti, who lost his battle with colon cancer January 30 at the age of 56.

“Sometimes people just want someone to talk to who has gone through it. I was reading this morning about someone coming to their first chemo. They wanted to know what to expect. I told them to take a little from each person they talk to – a little of the worst scenario and a little of the best scenario and they’ll be somewhere in between,” said Ramey.

He says his goal is to create awareness. The Colorectal Cancer Alliance estimates

there are 147,950 colorectal cases a year. One in 24 people risk a diagnosis, and one in three adults who are eligible are not getting screened. As a result of COVOD-19, a financial assistance fund through The Colorectal Cancer Alliance is available to help individuals afford screenings, such as a colonoscopy or a fecal immunochemical test (FIT). Those interested can call (877) 422-2030. The American Cancer Society recommends people of average risk (no personal or family history of cancer or bowel disease or polyps) begin regular screenings at age 45.

“Sometimes cancer can give you blessings,” said Ramey. He met one survivor who collaborated with a New York designer to stage a runway show during Fashion Week. Ramey was one of the models – all cancer survivors. The designer later created a shirt inspired by Ramey with the words: “Above All Odds, Live Life, Love Life,” that included the dark blue ribbon for colon cancer awareness.

Ramey’s journey has included attendance at several Colorectal Cancer Alliance Cancer events around the country; his story was highlighted at the organization’s annual Blue Hope Bash. He was in the audience of the ESPN ESPY Awards hosted by Peyton Manning, and met actor, comedian, rapper Nick Cannon at the Nike3ON3 tournament.

But Ramey’s most touching stories are those that take him back to his congenial hometown upbringing. He is eager to welcome newcomers to social media platforms and a Greenwood-based peer-to-peer support group he facilitates, “Colon Cancer All Stars.” In fact, Ramey tells how the group once set up an information booth at the Indiana State Fair alongside an inflatable colon.

His message to others: “Listen to your body. It talks to you. Looking back now I know there were signs. I didn’t think I had bleeding but a black tarry stool is a sign of blood. I was tired and I thought it was because of my age but it was something more,” said Ramey.

His sensitivity shows when he tells about a woman he invited to a colorectal conference. When she heard the speakers, she ended up abruptly leaving the room in tears. Ramey went out and checked on her and they sat on a bench and talked through some of her fears.

“What she told me made this seven years worth the while,” said Ramey. “She told me that when I first contacted her she was on the ledge ready to jump and I saved her life.” The woman was in her 30s and didn’t know anyone else her age with colon cancer. Before the conference was over, Ramey connected her with a young man who was half her age.

“We don’t all show the same symptoms and we don’t all handle the diagnosis the same,” said Ramey. “But if we can make connections then we don’t have to go it alone.”

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